In The Stolen Child, author Lisa Carey takes readers to a remote Irish island on the brink of abandonment. An American woman named Brigid arrives seeking a mystical well that grants miracles, and she enlists the help of two local sisters, Rose and Emer. Though the tale contains elements of fantasy, it’s deeply rooted Irish history. Here, Carey shares the fascinating story of the island where she set her tale.
The Stolen Child was inspired by a documentary called Death of an Island, about the evacuation of the Irish island Inishark in 1960. I watched the film in the hotel on the island next door, Inishbofin, a thriving tourist destination. Only fate and a harbor divided these two places.
In 1960 off the west coast of Ireland, the island of Inishark was stuck in a previous age. No electricity, running water, or telephones, let alone a shop or a priest. The boats residents used to make their living as fishermen were powered by oar, pulled into and out of a dangerous gap in the rock that functioned as a harbor. The people were divided between their love of the old ways and their longing for the safety and comfort of modernity. Eventually the government convinced them to relocate to a housing estate on the mainland, and the island was left abandoned, stopped in time.
Not all novel ideas come to you in a shivering flash like a dream, but this one did. I imagined two sisters, one thriving, the other imprisoned. While living in Ireland, I had felt like both of them. Irish culture itself is divided. People can be pragmatic and well read and still cross themselves at the mention of fairies. One of the country’s most famous saints, Brigid, is so wrapped up in the stories of the pre-Christian Druid goddess Brigid, that many assume they are the same woman. These days fairy rings are photographed by smart phones. To live in Ireland is to be constantly pulled by the past at the same time as you are reaching for the future.
I first went to Ireland in the 1990s. The travel book I was carrying recommended visiting Inishbofin, said it was the sort of place people went for a weekend and stayed the whole summer. I stayed for five years, and have returned for 20 more. I have lived there in the height of summer when thousands of tourists bike breathlessly from one end to the other, and in the winter when storms mean that the ferry can’t leave for a week and the 150 residents attempt to battle the loneliness and isolation of the season. I loved that island while reading on a cliff side under a brilliant blue sky, and despised it when I was imprisoned in a cottage with no fuel or phone or internet listening to a wind so vicious it threatened to toss me off the same cliff. Inishbofin sits in the water only a mile from its abandoned sister, and the only thing that saved it from a similar fate was a deep, sheltered harbor that drew sailboats and tourists and eventually the modern world.
You can visit Inishark on a calm day; a local boat drops you off and picks you up according to the tide. You have to leap off the boat while it’s still running, just at the moment when it rises with a wave. The houses are still there, their roofs fallen in, you can almost hear the children in the school playground, or the bells announcing mass in the church. Two years ago a series of winter storms tore in half what remained of the cement pier that lined the cove. The graveyard, set perilously on a cliff side, is beginning to release the bones of its ancestors as the land succumbs to erosion. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
I never saw Inishark when it was populated, but I have been welcomed again and again by its neighbor. I have been embraced by the wild landscape and the generous people; learned to understand the accents that required subtitles in the documentary; watched the babies from my first trip become adults manning the boat, serving Guinness, or playing music in the bar. I have spent lazy days sitting outside the pub, watching the silhouette of my son running back and forth on the hillside against a sunset that lasts for hours. Although I have only visited Inishark as an abandoned village, I know how heartbreaking it was to leave it, and I can see precisely what life would be like there now, if it weren’t for the dangers of nature and the limited imagination of the modern world.
Lisa Carey is the author of The Mermaids Singing, In the Country of the Young, and Love in the Asylum. She lived in Ireland for five years and now resides in Portland, Maine, with her husband and their son.